11 Cheshvan 5781 / Thursday, October 29, 2020 | Torah Reading: Lech Lecha
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Shoftim: Fate of the False Witness    

Shoftim: Fate of the False Witness

When witnesses falsely accuse a person, they intend to do damage. Their malicious thoughts set in motion a new and negative reality...


How powerful are our thoughts? If someone has evil intents that never come to fruition, where do those thoughts go? A fascinating explanation to these questions is given by the Maharal of Prague (1525-1609). His insights will hopefully shed an important light on how powerful thoughts really are. However, in order to properly understand his explanation we need to start with a discussion of a thought-provoking commandment in this week's Torah reading.
Two witnesses come to a Jewish court and testify that a random fellow we'll call Sam transgressed a Torah prohibition. For example, they said Sam ate non-kosher food, desecrated the Shabbat, or killed someone and deserves to be punished. The court hears and decides, based on their testimony, that Sam is guilty as charged. However, between the sentencing and the actual execution of his punishment, two new witnesses come and debunk the entire testimony of the first group of witnesses explaining to the court that these first witnesses have no right or ability to testify since they were nowhere near the scene of the crime.
What do you think, dear reader? What should be done to the first witnesses? A monetary fine? A few months in prison? Corporal punishment? According to the Torah we give the first witnesses the exact same punishment they tried to perpetrate on the defendant. That's right. If they testified that Sam deserves lashes, they get lashes. If they attempted to give him the death penalty, they get killed. Probably most of us find this approach to perjury somewhat surprising. Even though we wouldn't sing the praises of the first set of witnesses but isn't the measure-for-measure approach a little extreme?
On this issue the Maharal explains the internal workings of the witnesses' actions. From his words we can discover how powerful thoughts really are.
In order to understand his words, let's first analyze what the witnesses did wrong and why they are deserving of punishment. Surely, they are not accountable for directly hurting someone since their misdeed was only verbal. We might want to punish them for the fright or emotional anguish they caused the defendant but the possibility of receiving lashes or the death penalty solely for causing distress seems extreme.. Obviously the only thing which was clearly wrong was their evil intentions. They schemed to hurt and for this they are held accountable. However, if their transgression was limited to their thoughts and speech, why is this a reason for punishment?
In general, most of us relate to reward and punishment based on our experiences as children. If we're good Hashem will give us a lollipop and if we're bad then we get a slap. As adults we need to broaden our understanding of this topic in order to understand the interconnection between our thoughts and deeds and their outcomes. If someone tries riding his bicycle into a wall with the intention of knocking down the wall, the chances are the person and the bicycle will be hurt and the wall will remain standing. Is this a punishment? Obviously it's a direct consequence of a foolish act. This analogy reflects, in somewhat simplistic terms, the true nature of reward and punishment. What we do or don't do ultimately comes back to us as a natural consequence of the spiritual or physical worlds.
When the witnesses came to falsely accuse an innocent person, they came with intent to damage. Their thoughts created a reality and set in motion the possibility of hurting the defendant. But what happens now that the defendant is innocent? Says the Maharal, the same evil intent boomerangs back at the witnesses. Evil thoughts don't just dissipate and disappear, they are real and they can cause damage. But since Sam is not the deserving recipient of those evil plans, they turn around and become the source of the witnesses' punishment. The Maharal compares this to a rock thrown against a wall which doesn't just hit the wall and drop to the ground, it bounces back and can hurt the thrower. This powerful idea teaches us about the reality created by our internal world even through the rumination of our heart.. However, not only do the ideas of the Maharal teach us about the power of thoughts and words, these ideas also reflect a more accurate picture of what reward and punishment are about. "As ye sow, sow shall ye reap" is true even on the more spiritual aspects of our lives.
This idea is reflected in a verse about the downfall of Haman in the Purim story. I know it's not Purim for quite a while, but this concept clarifies an otherwise perplexing verse. At the end of the Purim story the Megillah tells us that Haman was killed because "the wicked thought that he planned against the Jews came back on his head". Why this seemingly superfluous description? Based on the Maharal we can understand that the wicked thoughts became a reality. However, since the Jewish people didn't deserve to be wiped out, those very same thoughts had their fulfillment in his demise. It wasn't a punishment, it was a reality of evil being turned back on evil.
This one insight obviously doesn't answer all the complicated questions about evil and evil intents but it does give us a better understanding of how powerful thoughts are. The witnesses plotted against the defendant and, in turn, they created their own downfall.
I'd like to conclude on a more upbeat note. We learned that negative thoughts and intentions create a negative reality that can turn back on the would-be perpetrator. Undoubtedly then, the positive thoughts we have about others bring about good and blessing not only for the other person but even for ourselves. May Hashem help us purify our hearts and minds to be wellsprings of caring and love for one another and a source of blessing for others and for ourselves.

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